Building Resilience

How to get a grip, get back up, and go on

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I recently had my first appointment with my new primary care physician. As she scanned the medical history of my parents, she paused when she got to the cause of death. “So… your father was… murdered?”

Most of the clients I encounter have experienced some kind of psychological trauma in their lives — but it’s generally not an acute, single-occurrence personal tragedy, or a catastrophic natural disaster or accident, or the actual experience of life-threatening physical or psychological harm.

That’s why I prefer not to use the word trauma —because it seems to imply that only the extreme, big, horrific stuff counts or has any lasting effect.

I’ve come to think of trauma as another word for life, because most of us (70 percent of U.S. adults) have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in our lives.

Trauma Messes With Your Mind

Trauma results when the experience of an event, a series of events, or a set of circumstances overwhelms our ability to cope with what happened or process the emotions involved. A traumatic experience has lasting effects on our physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being. It affects our ability to function well in important areas of our lives.

In other words, trauma messes with your mind. It shakes your beliefs about the world, the people in it, and how life really works. It can leave you in a state of extreme confusion and insecurity.

Researchers like Janoff-Bulman and DePrince and Freyd found that trauma can shatter three of our basic assumptions about the world:

The world is benevolent.
Life is meaningful.
The self is worthy.

I can relate to that — I became acutely aware of two things through my experience of what happened to my father:

There is no absolute safety. If someone really wants to kill you, there’s no 100 percent guarantee that you can keep yourself safe.

Justice is not guaranteed. For me, the worst moment of the murder trial was waiting for the jury’s verdict and realizing that the man that killed my father might walk out of the courtroom that day a free man.

How to Get a Grip

There’s a part of us that is deeply affected by trauma. However, I have found that rather than trying to “fix” that traumatized part of us, recovery is more about accessing other, more resilient parts of ourselves — parts that are better able to integrate the emotions involved without being flooded by them and process the experience without being shattered by it.

When I was recently asked to speak at the Kentucky Counseling Association annual conference about how to treat and prevent trauma, I was thankful to be able to share research conducted since my family and I were struggling through our experience over 30 years ago.

What we now know, thanks to researchers like Matthew Tull, is that our ability to recover boils down to a combination of built-in resilient characteristics that we already have in place, further resiliency that we can develop within ourselves, and the resiliency that we can draw upon from those around us.

I can now look back and recognize that I eventually tapped into or cultivated many of these characteristics or resources in my own recovery journey:

Being resourceful
Being more likely to seek help
Holding the belief that there is something you can do to manage your feelings and cope
Self-disclosure of the trauma to a trusted confidante
Having an identity as a survivor, as opposed to a victim
Having social support and connection with others, such as family or friends
Good problem-solving skills
Effective coping skills to deal with stress
Spirituality
Helping others
Finding positive meaning in the trauma

It’s hard to imagine someone like Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of the bestseller Lean In, having to deal with trauma. But it’s not so hard to think about anyone — no matter how powerful, affluent or accomplished — having to deal with life. After her 47-year-old husband suddenly dropped dead while they were on vacation last year, Sandberg was eventually ready to return to work, but struggling with how to manage it.

So she began posting updates to her Facebook page as a way to start the transition: “Many of my co-workers had a look fear in their eyes as I approached. I knew why — they wanted to help but weren’t sure how. Should I mention it? Should I not mention it? If I mention it, what the hell do I say?”

“I realized that to restore that closeness with my colleagues that has always been so important to me, I needed to let them in. And that meant being more open and vulnerable than I ever wanted to be.”

Sandberg has continued to speak openly and candidly about dealing with her husband’s death, including a moving speech at the UC Berkley 2016 commencement. She recently confirmed that she is working on a new book that combines her personal story along with others to focus on building resilience and finding meaning in the face of grief and adversity.

I’d call that a good example of self-disclosure, finding positive meaning in trauma, and helping others … and just about every other characteristic of resilience that we have identified. Sounds like something all of us experiencing “life” could use.

“You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it. In that process you will figure out who you really are – and you just might become the very best version of yourself.” – Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, at UC Berkley 2016 commencement.